The best synopsis of Preaching, actually comes from Timothy Keller himself, tucked away in the book’s appendix:
‘This volume is far from a complete textbook on preaching. You will have noticed I’ve spent most of my time on why a certain kind of preaching is needed and what that preaching looks like in principle and in example but relatively little time on how to prepare a good sermon. A manifesto, not a manual, as I told myself many times in the writing of this book’ (p. 213)
That is exactly right. In Preaching, Keller is articulating his preaching philosophy rather than giving a step-by-step guide. The result is a highly stimulating book that reflects the distinctive strengths and weaknesses of Keller’s own preaching.
The book is divided into three sections. Part one: Serving the word; Part two: Reaching the people; and Part three: In demonstration of the spirit and power.
Part one is a stirring call to preach Christ as the centre and heart of the whole Bible story. It’s hard to read this section without catching Keller’s joy and enthusiasm for preaching Christ with creativity, and passion.
A unique mark of Keller’s preaching is his ability to draw parallels between the Old Testament and the person of Jesus and the gospel message. The first three chapters give many stimulating examples of this and provide a useful breakdown of how he thinks about this task. However, as with Keller’s sermons, sometimes it feels like the connection to Jesus is somewhat alien to the original text. I was also unconvinced by his suggestion that we ‘preach Christ through instinct’ (p.86). I suspect that will look more like flights of fancy or invalid allegorizing in the hands of less experienced preachers.
A feature of Keller’s ministry in New York City and across the world has been the way he engages with culture and it’s on this topic that his manifesto really works.
I intended to read through this part quickly, but found myself pouring over Keller’s summary of five modern cultural narratives, and not simply for the sake of growing as a preacher. I found myself grappling with the profound forces that have shaped my own (late) modern worldview and understanding more of how Jesus fulfils those deepest of longings. In some ways I felt I was being preached to even more than being taught how to preach. The book is worth the price for this section alone.
Unfortunately, the final section concerning the work of the Spirit in the preacher and preaching was disappointing. Keller’s concluding exhortation is to ‘preach from the heart’ (p.206). However, his explanation of what this means feels overly simplistic and not particularly biblical. Furthermore, he suggests the evidence will be that ‘you will not be insecure or nervous’, which seems unlikely in reality and an unkind gauge by which to measure a preachers’ spiritual integrity.
When Keller finally does get practical his instruction to ‘choose a theme for the sermon’ takes us a long way from preaching ‘the central idea of text’ (p. 218). Such as when he commends preaching John 2:1-11 with the focus on verse 5 ‘Do whatever he tells you’ to suit a particular context.
However, these weak points don’t undermine the usefulness of the book for the preacher. Keller’s breadth of reading makes Preaching rich with ideas. He pulls key insights from C.H. Spurgeon and C.S. Lewis along with Friedrich Nietzsche and Charles Taylor, so that it feels like there are discoveries, new and old, waiting on every page.
Indeed, there is a great little window into Keller’s own preaching ministry later in the book when he exhorts preachers to speak memorably with fresh insight and asks:
‘How will you do this? I’m afraid the answer is volume. If you read a couple of books on a subject or text, you will have only one or two great, surprising insights. If you read a dozen books, you’ll have a lot more.’ (p. 177)
Keller’s book is evidence of this truth.
Overall, Keller’s Preaching won’t help the beginner much, and actually contains some pitfalls for those without an existing method of sermon preparation and a strong foundation in Biblical theology. However, it is a brilliantly communicated exegesis of our culture which will undoubtedly help many who take time to reflect on Keller’s insights and imitate his Christ-exalting approach to preaching.
Jeff Hunt, WA.